A Turning Point
Flashback to last season: It's Week 10. The Patriots just traded Jamie Collins & are now preparing for the Seahawks. The defense hasn't performed up to expectations & now plans to thrust a rookie LB (Elandon Roberts) into a starting role. Multiple defensive team breakdowns later, the unit is embarrassed on SNF: The Seahawks pour on 31 points & 420 yards. The Pats were lucky it was only 31 points. At this point in the season, fans (including myself) start questioning whether the defense will hold us back once again. Belichick knew changes needed to be made:
1. Expand Trey Flowers' Role to Starter
Prior to the Seahawks game, Flowers was a part timer playing about 40% of the snaps on defense. He would go on to start the rest of the season as a hybrid 3-4 DE/4-3 DE and record 9.5 sacks in 12 games.
2. Shift Jabaal Sheard's Role to Situational Pass Rusher
Prior to the bye week, Sheard was not getting it done as a starting DE. Despite playing 70% of the snaps & starting every game, he record just 3.5 sacks & run defense was lacking. Sheard would lose his starting job & be moved to a situational pass rusher role primarily as a 3-4 OLB the second half of the season playing about 45% of the time.
3. Utilize a rotation at ILB between Roberts & Van Noy
After Jamie Collins was traded, Roberts started vs. Seattle & struggled mightily in coverage against C.J. Prosise (7 receptions 87 yards). He would then be moved to a part time player on early downs while Van Noy primarily plays in passing situations.
4. Swap Justin Coleman out for Eric Rowe
Justin Coleman was the Patriots primary 3rd CB for the first half of the season playing 62.9% snaps vs. Seattle. He would not play the rest of the year with Rowe taking his place as the team's right outside CB with Ryan shifting down to the slot in the nickel.
5. Embrace the 3-4
While Belichick had always utilized multiple defensive fronts, 3-4 defensive looks became more prominent towards the end of the season as well as in the playoffs. Key players in this front seven:
DEs: Flowers, Brown, Long
DT: Branch, Valentine
OLB: Hightower, Ninkovich, Sheard, McClellin
ILB: Roberts, Van Noy, Hightower
With the changes implemented by BB, the defense was night & day after the Seattle game. They finished the year #1 in defensive PPG & performed better than any defense the 2nd half of the season. However, there were still doubters. "It's the Schedule, Mike!" would be heard often on sports radio. Criticism was fair. The Pats defense wasn't tested at a high level going into the playoffs. Their performance in the playoffs would be key to public perception as well as another Superbowl run.
(Numbers may be off slightly. GL= Goal Line. Photos Source: NFL Game Pass)
What separates the Pats defense apart is their ability to throw a variety of looks at an opponent. While teams like the Seahawks will line up nearly 90% of the time in a traditional 4-3 alignment either in base or nickel, the Pats D transformed into a unit that plays multiple fronts in different situations.
3-4 (3-3-5 Nickel)
The Pats utilized 3 down linemen the majority of the time (58%) in the playoffs. The main players in this front seven were Branch at DT, Flowers & Brown at DE, Hightower & Ninkovich at OLB, and Roberts & Van Noy alternating at ILB in the nickel. This formation provides high level pass rush productivity as it can be more disguised with multiple potential rushers as well as allowing Hightower to attack the QB more often than in the 4-3 at ILB.
Another variation of this alignment involved Hightower at ILB with two of Ninkovich, McCellin, or Sheard at OLB. This alignment allows maximum versatility and pass rush disguise as Hightower is the best blitzing inside linebacker in the NFL. Rushing Hightower while dropping the OLBs into coverage allows a disguised 4 man rush & confusion for opposing QBs.
Key Stats: 7 sacks, 10.3 sack %
The 3-4/3-3-5 defense provided a highly productive pass rush in the playoffs. For comparison, the Cardinals led the regular season with a sack % of 8.07%. This unit sacked Osweiler 3 times, Ryan 4 times, and provided enough pressure with 3 DL vs. Pittsburgh to flood the passing lanes with often 7-8 players in coverage. Look for Derek Rivers to factor in this defensive front early & often as a 3-4 OLB across Hightower. Guy & Wise should provide depth at 3-4 DE. Newly signed David Harris has the chance to start in this front as well at ILB.
4-3 (4-2-5 nickel)
The Pats second most frequently used (22%) defensive front in the playoffs was the 4-3/4-2-5 nickel. This unit usually featured Flowers & Sheard at DE, Branch & Brown at DT, and Hightower paired with either Roberts on early downs or Van Noy on passing downs at LB. In this play vs. the Steelers, Hightower was out of the game momentarily with an injury and McClellin came in at early down ILB.
(Under Front with Flowers & Brown at DE)
(Over front with Flowers & Ninkovich at DE)
The Pats used a rotation at 4-3 DE consisting primarily of Flowers, Ninkovich, Sheard, & Long (sometimes even Brown). While this front did not record a sack in the postseason, it was stout vs. the run & the pass.
Key Stats: 3.6 YPC, 55% Comp. Pct.
The 4-3 alignment was stout at the point of attack against the run with Flowers & Ninkovich setting the edges. However, this formation lacks the disguise and necessary talent to be highly effective at rushing the passer as Flowers is better suited as a 3-4 DE & Ninkovich as a 3-4 OLB at his age. Look for Kony Ealy to start across Flowers when the Pats go with 4 down linemen & Guy/Wise to provide depth at DT on passing downs.
2-4-5 Nickel (2-3-6 Dime)
The third most frequently used front (17%) involved 2 down linemen in obvious passing situations. Opposing teams passed 90% of the time vs. this front as they were usually down big:
(2-3-6 Dime vs. Texans as they are trailing in a pass heavy situation)
We also saw the two man front vs. the Falcons with less than a minute before OT:
(2-3-6 Dime vs. Falcons before OT in SBLI)
Key Stat: 7.58 Yards Per Play
This front is the definition of "bend but don't break" defense as it is used keep completions within the 8-10 yard range and the clock moving. Two short receptions later, the Falcons were nearly out of time and forced to spike the ball. They failed to convert on third down and the rest is history.
Used sparingly just 6 times in the playoffs, the 1 down lineman front is a more extreme version of the 2-3-6. Only seen in pass heavy situations, this front managed to sack Matt Ryan with Flowers lined up at DT above.
Playoff Verdict: Success
Against tougher competition including the 3 Bs in Pittsburgh as well as the Falcons historic offense, the Pats defense performed as a top 10 unit across all key metrics. They stopped the run, held passing games in check, & efficiently rushed the passer. When they needed to be near perfect in the fourth quarter of SBLI, they stepped up & shutout the Falcons. Mission accomplished.
A Look Ahead to 2017
- If he has enough left in the tank, look for David Harris to earn the starting ILB spot in the Pats' primary 3-3-5 defense.
- While he may not start the season at Derek Rivers has the talent & skillset to take over the job from 33 year old Ninkovich.
- FA Lawrence Guy & rookie Deatrich Wise should provide some much needed depth at the DE spots.
- Hightower & Harris should form a formidable LB duo in the 4-2-5.
- Kony Ealy should earn a starting DE spot across Flowers as Ninkovich transitions to a situational role.
- Guy has the versatility BB loves: the ability to contribute at 3-4 DE & 4-3 DT.
The Patriots defense has the talent & coaching to be the best unit in New England in over a decade. The versatility of the players as well as depth will allow Belichick's multiple defense to thrive in 2017.
Stay tuned for more content as training camp rolls around. See you there!